War & Peace

Guest blog: Being a journalist in Uruzgan


Martin Gerner, a freelance correspondent in Afghanistan for German radio and national print media, has been training and mentoring Afghan journalists since 2004. One such training course took place only few weeks ago with a group of journalists from Tirinkot. The then BBC/Pajhwok stringer, Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak, had actively helped to bring the training group together. Although only 25, Omaid was one of the most serious and experienced reporters in the province. On 25 July 2011, he was killed along with more than twenty others, mainly civilians in a Taleban attack. As Gerner writes, the difficulties of being an independent journalist in Uruzgan have got a lot worse with the death of Omaid.

The journalists I was working with pointed out how severely their environment was marked by religious conservatism and tribal tradition. Symbolically, they said, not a single female reporter was currently working in Uruzgan and that was unlikely to change soon, as one said, ‘There won’t be any change to this in the coming ten years.’

Omaid (see AAN’s obituary here) seemed to have been the exception in his home town, more courageous than others. His brother, Ahmad Jawed, whom I spoke to hours after the killing said he wanted to be like his brother, ‘Everybody knew him on the street and in the city.’ But not everybody respected him or the media more generally. Reporters in Tirinkot have it more difficult in Uruzgan than most Afghan provinces. Government offices rarely have spokespeople – which makes intimidation by local stakeholders even easier. The consequence is a considerable degree of self-censorship.

Bodies to protect the rights of journalists do not exist in Tirinkot, as they do in some other provincial capitals. This is partly due to the limited media present there, but also to the fact that journalist unions in Afghanistan are still not as united as they should be if they really wanted to represent a ‘fourth power’. Parallel to this, only a  handful of Afghan lawyers have specialised in media law and are currently trying to make themselves known within the community of Afghan reporters. Most of these media specialists work in Kabul, as do the media organisations offering trainings.

If in urgent need, reporters from remote provinces sometimes simply have to rely on reaching Afghan or foreign organisations in time, who would then try to alert trusted authorities in time, or even just the National Directorate of Security. But very often, Afghan reporters do not allow themselves the ‘luxury’ of taking care beforehand of these aspects of journalism security and might not have the appropriate numbers to hand. In Omaid’s case, none of this would have saved his life.

The situation for journalists in Uruzgan has in fact worsened after last year’s NYT article Susanne Schmeidl mentioned (see here). It fuelled the suspicions of those in power as to which side the (relatively small number of) media outlets and journalists in Uruzgan were on. The journalists in Uruzgan described how difficult it had become to criticize governmental authorities, given that ISAF’s military strategy is heavily weighted towards portraying governmental representatives as the sole solution to existing problems.

The killings in Tirinkot are likely to have a lasting negative effect on civil society and media in Uruzgan, with the malign influence spreading throughout the rest of the south. Journalism training, be it from national or international media NGOs, hardly exists out in the southern provinces and are likely to completely disappear for some time after this. The fact that ISAF itself tries to reach out to local journalists for training in this context may make security even worse for reporters still trying to let the country and the world know what is happening in their provinces.

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